A recent study has shown that at least half of US children are raised by both of their parents. This means that the other half grow up under the care of a single parent, a relative, or a foster parent. Understandably, this instability with parents has led to instability among children, particularly boys, who lack role models and structure as they grow into adulthood.

When writers discuss family breakdown, it is this group that rightly receives the most attention. The solution, at least at this juncture, is relatively simple (though not always easy): parents should love one another, live responsibly, and stay married.

But what about those children who do grow up with married parents? Is success and support all but assured? In many cases, no, and it’s time to pay more attention to this growing problem.

Parents Who Turn On Their Adult Children

A parent can stay married, have the right values, prioritize their children, and still make their children miserable. These parents become ironically more abusive and petty as their children become more self-sufficient and moral. They may be generous and kind to others, but they will privately rule their families like a tyrant and seek to make the home all about them. They are what Dr. Perston Ni calls the “narcissistic parent.”

Not all parents are this way. There were many adult children and older parents who enjoyed one another’s company this holiday season. It is certainly possible for children to grow up and make the right choices, and for parents to show their approval and continue supporting their children. It’s just not always probable. Judging from the numerous testimonials online, many young adults today find themselves at odds with their parents—not because they failed in life, but because they succeeded.

The movie Lady Bird illustrates this breakdown between parents and their children beautifully. Most of the film seems to play out like a typical coming-of-age tale: Lady Bird rebels against her teachers, her friend, and her exasperated mother, only to grow up and make peace with them. But the movie ends quite differently than expected: Lady Bird indeed learns from her mistakes, heads off to college, and seeks reconciliation with everyone, but her mother feels betrayed and refuses to forgive her daughter for essentially becoming more mature.

Unlike most reviewers who sympathized with the mother, writer Jim Vorel was absolutely right in his assessment of the movie: “Lady Bird is a film about its title character’s coming-of-age, struggling with self-absorption and selfishness, yes, but it’s also a film about lifelong emotional abuse, and most of that abuse flows straight from Marion [Lady Bird’s mother] in the direction of Lady Bird.”

Those who haven’t experienced this kind of abuse might assume that Lady Bird and her mother eventually reunite after the events shown in the movie. Those who have experienced it know that it’s more likely that Lady Bird will go on living and learning as she drifts further away from her mother who will be unwilling and increasingly incapable of changing.

Reasons Why Parents Turn On Their Children

Something has changed in Western culture that has turned today’s parents against their children. It isn’t a mere matter of miscommunication, but a fundamental misunderstanding of what parenthood is about. Although the situation differs with each family, there are three main reasons that explain this misunderstanding: (1) the idolatry of familial bonds, (2) the epidemic of narcissism, and (3) the rise of competition within the home.

With the diminishment of community, faith, and friendship in modern life, some parents have gradually come to make much more of their familial relationships than is healthy. What starts as a normal affection of parents for their children develops into an obsessive clinginess. Parents come to demand far more than is possible from their children, wanting constant gratitude, continual affirmation, full obedience, and—most of all—complete control over their lives. C.S. Lewis discusses this phenomenon in his classic The Four Loves, arguing how family affection can degenerate into idolatry if left unchecked by other kinds of loves, like friendship, romance, and religious devotion.

Due to the rise of the internet and social media, it has also become common for today’s parents and grandparents to succumb to intense narcissism, as mentioned earlier. Narcissistic parents treat their children more as convenient soundboards than individuals in their own right. In their minds, their stories of health problems, rude cashiers, and squabbling with relatives on Facebook are far more interesting than anything their children might be experiencing. It somehow never occurs to them that the birth of a new child or a job promotion might be slightly more important than what they saw on cable news the other night.  

Narcissistic parents lack empathy and want to be heard, not understood. In order to keep people around, they will constantly play mind games with them, especially loved ones. They will guilt-trip, gaslight, and even fabricate stories and illnesses to make themselves the victim and everyone else the enemy. They won’t care that they abuse others, because they’re not really thinking of others at all. And they will eagerly delude themselves into thinking they’re fine people because this feeds their ego and soothes their conscience. Needless to say, dutiful children who hope to honor their parents suffer the most from narcissistic parents who find it all too easy to repeatedly tap into that large reservoir of shame and guilt.

In conjunction with these first two problems is the odd rivalry that rises between parents and their children. Rather than praise and support their children when they achieve something, many parents feel the need to put them down and downplay their success since it takes the focus away from them. Rather than encourage their child to make friends and develop their own personality, they become possessive and jealous when other people (friends, spouses, the other parent, or even grandchildren) enter the scene.

At the root of all these problems is a profound insecurity that creeps into certain aging parents, a feeling avidly pushed by today’s materialistic culture. If one is not making money, winning prizes, and having everyone’s undivided attention, he or she feels like a failure—and it’s everyone’s else’s fault but his own. To make matters worse, children are utterly powerless to change this. In too many cases, parents would prefer to pick a fight and drag up old arguments to justify themselves instead of finally forgiving and forgetting.

Consequently, many otherwise responsible young adults still struggle handling adulthood while otherwise kindly and thoughtful elders find themselves alone and neglected. One can assume that this will continue when today’s young people grow old themselves, except that they’ll have no children to blame since many of them didn’t have children in the first place—many of them understandably fear becoming like their own parents.

A Way Forward

If there is a solution to this problem, it must first come from older parents themselves. They need to realize that there is value in stepping aside, not only because it allows the younger generations to make their way but also because it allows them to fill the very necessary role of supporting the younger generations. Adult children still need their parents—sometimes even more than they did when they were younger.

For their part, adult children will have to extract themselves from this situation and realize that it’s not their fault and that they are not trained therapists who must stay on call for every hysterical raving and bout of extreme depression. They owe it to themselves and their own families to seek support through friendships, community, and faith—In other words, they should avoid repeating the mistakes their parents likely made. This won’t completely treat the wounds of emotional abuse, but it will lead to healing and offer some much-needed distance and objectivity to better analyze the situation.

Overall, the parents and their children need to see this conflict for what it is: dark, empty, and painful. Parents need to find the humility to repent and return to their children, and children need to find the strength and magnanimity to forgive them. It may be too late in certain cases, and it may only lead to more heartache, but it is the only way forward with the short time that’s left. Even if a selfish parent never repents, or if the child never forgives, each can at least find some comfort in doing the right thing and finding some measure of peace.

Photo: Merie Wallace/A24